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The beef with Nathan’s is still fresh.
Takeru Kobayashi—arguably the greatest professional eater of all time, a man whose records include eating 62 slices of pizza in 12 minutes and 13 grilled cheese sandwiches in one minute, a man whose uniquely positioned stomach and innovative nature allowed him to double the previous Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest record of 25 in his first try—is again not involved in America’s most famous eating competition.
A six-time champion of the event, his name has long been removed from the Nathan’s Wall of Fame of contest winners. Kobayashi, now 39, is still embroiled in contract disputes with Major League Eating, and he subsequently hasn’t competed in the Coney Island Independence Day tradition since 2009. And while there are many other high-profile contests for competitive eaters in countries with much more interest in the sport than the United States, Kobi’s perpetual absence from the Nathan’s stage continues to be felt.
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After all, Kobayashi wasn’t just competitive eating’s Michael Jordan. As Major League Eating president Rich Shea said to ESPN’s Darren Rovell in 2007, “To associate Michael Jordan with Kobayashi is a slight against Kobayashi.”
Today, Kobayashi lives in New York, so we decided to have “The Tsunami” swing by our Bleacher Report offices to dish on what he’s eating these days, if retirement is on the horizon and whether he—a man whose authority in this matter surpasses almost anyone’s—thinks a hot dog is a sandwich.
Bleacher Report: What eating records that you hold are you most proud of?
Takeru Kobayashi: This is a difficult question. It’s really personal opinion, but I’d like to say it’s cow brains. Because I hate cow brains! [Ed. Note: Kobayashi ate 57 cow brains in 15 minutes.] That tasted awful and it looked, you know, gross. [Laughs.] The smell is so bad! It had been so long from when they prepared it for the competition. The more time that goes by, it gets stinky.
And actually, it’s not my opinion, but many people say the most important record is 50 hot dogs. Because I doubled the record and I changed their market. I agree with that idea, too.
B/R: You’ve discussed the process of rethinking how eating was done, thinking of it more as a sport. How do you think that applies to your life overall? Do you look at everything as a problem that can be solved differently?
Kobayashi: I’m always like that about everything. When I try to do something, I always think, “What is the best way to do this?” Instead of taking what everyone else says and how it has been forever, it’s faster for me to try myself. Of course I listen to what everybody says, and at first I’ll try what people say, but I always come back to [trying it my way.]
B/R: Do you still watch the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest?
Kobayashi: [Laughs.] Not at all.
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B/R: Have you ever had any contact with Joey Chestnut since then?
Kobayashi: No, because I don’t have his phone number or email address. About four years ago, I was working with a hot dog company, and the CEO [said] something to Joey Chestnut and Joey Chestnut got angry and he said something back about me on Twitter, so I blocked him. [Laughs.]
I didn’t want to talk with him that way. People may think, “Competitive eaters are so childish!”
B/R: What did you think of people playing into the USA vs. Japan stuff with you and Chestnut?
Kobayashi: [I’ve been] living in New York City almost seven years, and my mentality has changed a lot. Just from being in New York this long and going across America, I realize that in New York, nobody really cares. They are just like, “We’re New Yorkers.” I feel like that is really the way it should be.
I don’t like competing in front of people saying “U-S-A! U-S-A!” to me—I live here!
B/R: You told Sports Illustrated last year you cared less about beating Joey Chestnut’s record because he was beaten by Matt Stonie. With Chestnut winning last year, do you want to beat him again, or are you satisfied?
Kobayashi: I’m not really interested in anyone’s record or anyone—I’m always fighting with myself. I always try to do my best. I’m not really interested in Nathan’s. Last year, ESPN 30 for 30 wanted to have us rematch, but I asked them to make MLE get out of the competition. “If you can do that, I’m happy to compete with him.” But they couldn’t, because Nathan’s has a three-year contract with MLE. So I said no.
Tina Fineberg/Associated Press/Associated Press
B/R: Things like esports and drone racing are growing. How does competitive eating grow again?
Kobayashi: If we have big sponsors and if they have huge prize money, many great eaters would come. Maybe they should make teams.
B/R: That’s really clever, because the sports I mentioned are both team-based. Drone racing and esports both have teams.
Kobayashi: Each of the eaters has their own speciality. Someone has huge stomach capacity, someone can eat fast, someone is good at eating meat, someone loves sweets. [Laughs.]
B/R: Do you still work out?
Kobayashi: I used to work out really hard. But I quit. [Laughs.] I was about 200 pounds. Now I’m 135 pounds. I lost a lot of muscles. I got arthritis from the bars. I actually have jaw arthritis.
B/R: When you aren’t eating, what are you doing? What are your hobbies?
Kobayashi: I like dogs. I really love dogs. I used to have a beagle and a miniature [wiener] dog. [Laughs.]
B/R: Obviously style is one, too.
Kobayashi: I think many people think competitive eating is a really disgusting sport, so people think they look bad normally. But I care about what I’m wearing. I don’t want to be someone who is doing something that is considered gross and then also look like a slob.
If we did have a competitive eating league or teams like we talked about, they would need to look good for it to be [marketable]. Look at the Nathan’s competition—they look like slobs. Think about basketball, they all wear nice sneakers. Packaging has everything to do with the market.
B/R: If you weren’t eating, what other sport would you be playing?
Kobayashi: Baseball. I used to play baseball in high school. I [once] threw a first pitch 87 mph.
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B/R: Is a hot dog a sandwich?
Kobayashi: No! No. You have to have a lot of respect for hot dogs. It’s completely different.
First of all, the hot dog is American. Sandwiches are not American. They’re different. Second of all, a hot dog is like a pop idol. Hot dogs are cute. It’s a pop image—everyone knows what a hot dog is.
B/R: Have you given any thought to retirement?
Kobayashi: Not really soon, but I’m thinking about it. With my talent for being able to eat as an athlete, I’m just looking to use that talent in other fields now. What can I do with that talent besides just competing?